We’re cold, we’re wet and we’re here.
Mother, father and kitted-out son on this dank December Saturday morning, as inconspicuously conspicuous as the others standing beside the clubhouse of one of Dublin’s top underage football teams.
The trials season is now open, and this is our … O’s … first one.
O is leaving his football team to join a new one.
Maybe this one.
Everything about his old club was positive, except the football.
Getting beaten – hammered – every week and, worse, expecting to be.
O’s football has suffered and he just had to leave.
There have been no tears or tantrums all season and he has displayed immense fortitude.
But the head has gone down a little more with each loss, the shoulders hunched a little tenser as he took the pitch.
Been a while since he hopped out of bed on match day.
Two years ago, the cracks would have shown. Outwardly.
Not this time.
But the internal cracks run deeper, insinuating themselves into a player’s very well-being.
At this level all these kids can play football. Some obviously a little better than others, but the mental side determines so much, if not everything.
You can bluff your way through life, I have observed, but you can’t bluff your way through a sporting contest. Not at this level.
So here he is, starting again.
Yes, 13 years old and he has to rock up, and wait now for the head coach to show up and run the rule over him, and all the other hopefuls.
As O’s parents, we are trying to lead and guide but not overstep the mark.
Out there on the pitch he will be on his own, so we have to take his lead, and trust in that resilience and valour that has served him well.
“Don’t be a weirdo” he whispers sharply to me at one point as I lean in a little too close.
The knots of parents and lone kids are scanning each other, nervous but determined that no whiff of blood or weakness be released into the desperate winter air.
So we will find out by crowd osmosis what pitch we will actually go to, as O gets tetchier with our fussing and talk, setting his game face.
Eventually he leaves us, to go over and wait, inscrutable now, at the metal barrier outside the pitch. Ready to go on.
The kids from the club are all here in their club gear uniform, cosy in their familiarity with each other, but armed somewhere with the knowledge that the triallists here are looking for their spot.
No-one is safe.
We spot the head coach, he sees me; I know he knows me, and knows O, but he too has his game face on.
Soon O will run out with the other gladiators in football boots on to a soggy, bumpy pitch, as all the coaches with their jackets and club crests take their sideline positions, ready to give the thumbs up or down at the end.
They will weight up these boys like cattle in a bull-ring, gauging them for speed, skill, tactical nous, heart … whatever they are looking for in players deemed worth of wearing their club colours, and representing them in the city’s highest league and beyond.
The easiest bit is the actual football.
There is a long warm up and then bibs are allocated.
O settles in, he’s doing okay … passing well, standing close to his opponent, trying to get him to do what O wants, not the other way around.
Moments in, a guy from the other team gets free on the right as we are watching it, and cuts a dangerous ball across the area.
O has spotted it and leaves his position on the left to charge across the area and a lunging tackle just tips the ball out away from the attacker about to unload on the open goal.
The ball is cleared for a corner. But O is down, holding his foot.
That’s him, always ready to put his body on the line.
But there’s a slight difference. He’s never one to let people know he’s hurt or complain, but I can tell from his gait he is not moving 100 per cent freely.
Maybe he’s 98 percent. But that missing two per cent …
The game has to go on, and he keeps plugging away.
The session eventually ends and we linger on the sideline, waiting for O to come to us.
He is disappointed.
Disappointed with the level of the triallists, most of them from the Major leagues, the levels below the Premier, where O has been playing.
Disappointed with himself.
I am the one who draws attention to the fact he didn’t look comfortable out there after that early challenge.
He admits his “what do ya call it, my groin? … is a bit sore”.
We are making our way towards the clubhouse, when one of the coaches calls us back, telling us the head coach wants a word.
He wants to talk to me.
Long story short: he is full of praise for O’s skillset, his willingness to put his body on the line, but he does not need any new defenders.
“Listen I don’t want to waste yer time … I know O, he’s a great kid, but we only conceded four goals all last season, and one of those was a goalkeeping error!”
He is smiling and looking at the other coach as he says this, clearly the pair have agonised over every one of those four goals conceded.
“Our problem last season was we were making loads of chances and not converting them … that’s what we need, someone to take those chances … but they’re like gold dust.”
So that’s it. We appreciate the fact the coach has taken the time to approach us and talk to me.
I grin at him, touch him on the shoulder, and say “I’m hoping that some time, I will be saying to you, ‘You had your chance’ …”
“You might be right … but as a coach I have to make these decisions.
“But the best of luck to O.”
How does O take this?
“I agree 100 per cent,” he says. “When you only concede four goals all season, he’s right, you don’t need more defenders.”
That’s the thing with O, he knows who he is, and you better not try to kid him or jolly him along. Just tell him straight. If he agrees, he agrees, and he will let you know when he doesn’t.
Trial one out of the way.
- If you enjoyed what you have just read, try another one! Try them all! Seriously, follow my blog and you won’t miss out again. Thanks for reading.